MELBOURNE, Oct. 19 (Xinhua) -- Australian researchers have discovered for the first time that some Tasmanian devils have a natural immune response to the disease which nearly wiped out the iconic species.
The research, undertaken by the University of Tasmania's Menzies Institute for Medical Research, provides the first evidence that the devils can develop a resistance to the Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD) which has killed up to 90 percent of the population since first being diagnosed in 1996.
Blood sample analysis of 60 wild devils with DFTD found that six of marsupials naturally developed an immune response to the cancer cells.
Despite representing only 10 percent of the devils analyzed, the research team said that the immune response would significantly help in understanding the biology of DFTD.
Rodrigo Hamede, a biological science researcher and member of the DFTD team at the Menzies Institute, said the study could help researchers understand how devils are beginning to co-exist with the cancer.
"As some devils are responding to the cancer it suggests the population can evolve to live with the disease. To further understand the adaptive and evolutionary response of devils to this disease we need to continue the long-term monitoring of wild devil populations," Hamede said in a University of Tasmania press release on Wednesday.
"This is an exciting discovery that supports our recent finding that devils are evolving their immune and cancer genes in as little as four generations after disease outbreak."
Greg Woods, the research leader, said the relatively small percentage of devils which had developed the immunity highlighted the importance of continued vaccine research.
"Full protection for the species will require a more widespread response, and that is what we are aiming for in the current vaccine research," Woods said.
The Australia Zoo conservation effort has estimated there could be as few as 15,000 devils left in the wild.